Song du semaine: R.E.M., "Maps and Legends"

Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M.’s third full-length album after the jangle-pop masterpieces Murmur and Reckoning, has inspired as much argument as any piece of music since Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Where Stravinsky started riots with his full-bore assault on the conventions of tonality and rhythm, R.E.M. wrote an enigmatic collection of Southern stories that expanded their sonic palette in several directions.

It’s a little shocking at first, with Peter Buck’s friendly guitar unleashing a peal of distortion and dissonance in Feeling Gravity’s Pull. Somehow, the album also includes the bouncy rocker Can’t Get There From Here along with a host of folky tunes, some even going so far to include a banjo.

And yet it’s coherent. Most of the album has something to do with being lost and seeking direction, and it’s steeped in Southern folklore. (On the cover art, as any R.E.M. fan will tell you, it’s clear that the title can be reversed into Reconstruction of the Fables.) Southerners are friendly folks who are more than happy to point you in the right direction — if there is one.

In hindsight, it’s a brilliant album. The songs have lyrical gems and subtle hooks propelled along by Mike Mills’ unique approach to bass, which serves as a sort-of lead instrument just as it did on the last two albums.

The singles from this one were Can’t Get There From Here and Driver 8. The latter is more representative of the album as a whole.

But this one’s even better. Mills and Buck conjure a sound like a fog-shrouded road. Michael Stipe’s lyrics and delivery hit the theme of being lost, but they go a step further, as if to ask, “Are you sure how to read the map? Are you sure what you’re looking for?”

None of Stipe’s early lyrics were direct. You’re not really supposed to know if he’s talking about anything specific. Apply it any time you think someone isn’t quite grasping history or geography. Or maybe the record isn’t quite accurate.

The video is a live performance from Germany in 1985. Not much difference between this and the studio version.

Why journalists are intellectually superior to doctors

For most of the past 12 years, I’ve been on a mailing list called Online-News. It started as a nifty clearinghouse for practical and philosophical ideas for new media. Today, it’s often a semi-public square in which we don hairshirts and wail about our inability to grasp the possibilities of tools that have been around since 1995. Or 1999. Or 2002. Or … wait … here’s a dispatch from Silicon Valley …

I kid because I care, I care because I think I’m happy that we have such high standards for what we should be able to do. That’s great. We should be pushing the envelope. (And, given financial realities, we need to do so.)

Now consider the medical profession. Specifically, the common cold. Even those with scientifically and theologically dubious beliefs on the origins of life would concede that the common cold has been around for a few thousand years.

The cold, surely, has been cured. Right?

Not only has the cold not been cured, but this week, medical science actually took a step backward. Those over-the-counter medicines we’ve used to make our kids feel better? They don’t.

The kids may beg to differ, but what do they know? They’re kids.

So if your kids have colds? Ah, just run your hot water for 15 minutes at a time to get a bathroom all steamy, then sit in there with ’em. That’ll provide slight relief.

I believe the journalism equivalent would be blogging with a typewriter and mail delivered by horse-drawn buggy.

We’re in the 21st century now, doc. Care to join us?

Live-blogging VH1 Classic

Been a while, hasn’t it? I’m doing some work with the dial at Channel 237, so let’s have some fun.

Blue Oyster Cult, Burnin’ for You: Likeable if unexceptional riff-rocker. Video is four, five, 10 guys with guitars, plus a drummer in zebra pants. And some fire, in case you forgot the name of the song.

Neil Young, Heart of Gold: I like the song, which is the only thing keeping from me a rant about Neil’s status as one of the most overrated performers/songwriters in rock history. Southern Man actually makes me sympathize with Skynyrd. Cinnamon Girl makes no sense. Like Bowie, he’s gone through different phases; unlike Bowie, he seems ill at ease in all of them. But this one, at least, is worthwhile. Good classic folk song. Video is a bunch of hippies strumming guitars.

Meat Loaf, Two out of Three Ain’t Bad: Video is from VH1’s Storytellers, which is wrong on so many levels. I’d listen to Mr. Loaf talk about Bat Out of Hell, sure. Maybe have a good fistfight with Jim Steinman just for old times’ sake. But this is a crap performance of a crap song. He’s sitting, he’s struggling with the melody, and he’s doing hand gestures I’d associate with Sarah McLachlan emphasizing a particularly tear-jerking lyric in Hold On. As Crash Davis would say, “C’mon Meat. Bring that weak-ass shit.”

Def Leppard, Love Bites: I have to apologize for VH1 Classic here. You don’t usually get a quartet this weak. I don’t mind Leppard ballads in general — Bringin’ On the Heartbreak is an overlooked classic, even if the remake could make you long for the days when synthesizers existed only in labs. This one prototypical Leppard — awkward lyrics balanced by strong vocal harmonies and solid subtle riffs.

But please don’t ever play this on Storytellers or Unplugged or anything that would deny Phil Collen use of the whammy bar.

Bruce Springsteen, Dancing in the Dark: The closest I can come to relating this song to anything in my life is the vague thought that Family Ties officially jumped the shark when Courteney Cox replaced Tracy Pollan as Alex’s girlfriend. But at least Cox wound up with a great show later.

Bruce Springsteen, Radio Nowhere: Hey, they snuck a “Classic/Current” into the mix! It’s a better-than-average song transformed into something truly good by the E Streeters’ sense of urgency. Great playing from Weinberg and Clemons here. Biggest flaw is that Bruce, even moreso than usual, is singing as if his teeth are glued together. The video is nothing more than the band playing in a sparsely lit room, which is plenty. Great to see these guys play.

John Cougar Mellencamp, R.O.C.K. in the USA: I always have to laugh at this song. Not because of the Renaissance Man scene, but because I wrote a truly juvenile parody back in the day. All you have to do is switch two letters and fill in the verses. The last one is a lot of fun. The video is a little overbearing, opening and closing with Mellencamp in some sort of mock interview about how great all this music was.

The Police, Synchronicity II: I’m tempted to do a Beavis and Butthead-style “Yes!” here. I’m not sure Sting ever wrote a better song, and the performance is perfect in its blustery chaos. Sing along now: “The factory belch-es filth inTOOOOO the sky!” The video works, too – Sting, Andy and Stewart dressed up like kings of a post-apocalyptic landfill, all looking angry, until the camera zooms over a dark Scottish lake. Many miles away — or is it?

The Cars, My Best Friend’s Girl: Live version. Not bad, since these guys could all play, but whenever I hear this, I wish it was Just What I Needed, which has a few more novelties and a terrific Elliott Easton solo. Hmmm … quick download here … there. What’s next?

Night Ranger, Don’t Tell Me You Love Me: Opening with the band’s logo floating over train tracks as if introducing the band — necessary in these pre-Sister Christian days — the video settles into a rather silly performance clip with wind machines, leaves and smoke. (Except during the guitar solos, when they’re all sitting on a train in black and white like some Agatha Christie murder mystery.) The song, though, isn’t half-bad. Bassist Jack Blades, thankfully, gets the call on lead vocals instead of drummer Kelly Keagy. The band thunders as if they have something deep to say. They don’t, but if you pretend they do, it’s a solid rocker.

Rod Stewart, Hot Legs: Also set on train tracks for some reason, as if Stewart’s positing himself as an old bluesman. Dude, you’re not singing She Caught the Katy. The band looks incredibly bored, though bassist Phil Chen tries to get into it by chewing on a piece of hay during his mini-solo. Perhaps they knew they were a year or so away from filming Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?

Ozzy Osbourne, Shot in the Dark: How many sort-of metal songs open with “Out on the street.” This is your typical girl-goes-to-concert, girl-gets-headache, Ozzy-makes-dramatic-entrance (begging the question: “Where was he during the first verse?”), Ozzy’s-glare-exacerbates-headache, girl-turns-into-metal-she-demon. Let this be a warning to everyone: Taking Ozzy Osbourne seriously will give you a headache and affect your vision. In rare cases, you may turn two-dimensional. Moreso than you already were.

They’re playing Space Oddity now, but I think that’s enough. We’ll try this again sometime, hopefully with a better selection of videos.